Priesthood: February 2011 Archives


In today's little commentary on Cardinal Piacenza's conference on Priestly Celibacy, I focus on the profound spiritual freedom that is a fruit of chastity in the celibate state, and that allows the priest to receive and to exercise the grace of spiritual fatherhood. Along the many holy priests characterized by this grace of paternity, I would point to Blessed Columba Marmion, Saint Pio da Pietrelicina, Saint Gaetano Catanoso, and Chanoine Louis Croset Again, my comments are in italics.

Liberty of Body and Soul

Another reason for Celibacy is identified out by the Pontiff in the need, connected with the Mystery, of a profound spiritual freedom. The Encyclical states: "it is that they may acquire this spiritual liberty of body and soul, and that they may be freed from temporal cares, that the Latin Church demands of her sacred ministers that they voluntarily oblige themselves to observe perfect chastity" (n.22), and he adds: "Consider again that sacred ministers do not renounce marriage solely on account of their apostolic ministry, but also by reason of their service at the altar" (n.23). In this way emerges how the Magisterium of Pius XII ties the cultic reason to that of the apostolic and missionary motivation for Celibacy in a synthesis that, far from opposing them, represents a complete unison in favour of priestly celibacy.

Spiritual Paternity

Pius XII had already stated in his Apostolic Exhortation Menti Nostrae: "by this law of celibacy the priest not only does not abdicate his paternity, but increases it immensely, for he begets not for an earthly and transitory life but for the heavenly and eternal one" (n.26).
Photo: Saint Gaetano Catanoso (1879-1963), a model of spiritual paternity for all priests.


The Healing Power of the Father's Love

A priest cannot grow into nor can he exercise his "heavenly and eternal paternity" (Pope Pius XII) without first experiencing his own sonship in the Eternal Son and the love of the Eternal Father. For many priests, faith in the Fatherhood of God is a path to interior healing. This is especially true for those who, for one reason or another, did not grow into manhood in liberty of heart and in joy under the affirming gaze of a father. The Eternal Father desires to banish fear from the hearts of his priest-sons. God's will is that His priest-sons should "serve him without fear, in holiness and justice before Him" (Lk 1:74-75) all the days of their life.

As Jesus Was Father in the Midst of the Apostles

God would have every priest know that he is loved and surrounded by His paternal presence as Father, a presence that sustains the priest, that allows him to become in every way the man that God has always wanted him to be. Faith in the paternal presence of God allows the priest, in turn, to become a father, a father in the image of The Father, a father even as Jesus was fully father in the midst of His disciples. The disciples discovered the fatherhood of God on the face of Jesus Christ. They felt the Divine Fatherhood when they drew near to His Sacred Heart. They saw the Fatherhood of God at work in the signs of mercy and power that Jesus worked in His Father's Name.

Abandonment to the Father

It must be the same for us, priests. We are called to be living images of the Divine Paternity. The Father Himself implants in the heart of His priests the charism of a paternal love. By virtue of this grace of paternal love, the priest can bring healing to a multitude of souls held back in their spiritual development for want of the indispensable experience of a father's love. Out of that experience souls can grow in the theological virtue of hope, in confidence, trust and, ultimately, in the practice of abandonment to the Eternal Father's love and unfailing providence. There is, by the way, a little known classic on this very subject, L'abandon filial by a humble, hidden religious named Soeur Jean-Baptiste. As far as I know it is available only in French, but it merits being translated into English.

The Spiritually Fatherless

It seems to me that the Eternal Father desires, at this precise moment in the history of the Church, to renew the grace of fatherhood among His priests. It is when a priest is father that he corresponds most fully to God's designs of love upon his life. The Church, beloved Spouse of Jesus Christ, suffers because so many priests fail to live the singular grace of their supernatural paternity. Souls seek fathers and, all too often, they are sent away disappointed and abandoned to live among the vast numbers of the spiritually fatherless who mark contemporary society with a particular sadness.

Divine Fatherhood in the Souls of Priests

The Eternal Father would have each of us priests receive the graces and the supernatural energies of the Divine Fatherhood in our own souls. The more a priest lives out his paternal mission, the more will he resemble the Only-Begotten Son who said, "He that seeth me, seeth the Father also" (Jn 14:9).

The Diocesan Priest: A Religious?

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Don Andrea Sartoro.jpg

Photo: Don Andrea Sartoro (born 7 September 1945, Priverno, Italy -- died 5 February 2006) was a diocesan priest murdered in Santa Maria Church in Trabzon, Turkey where he served as a member of the Fidei Donum missionary program. At Don Santoro's funeral at the Basilica of St. John Lateran, Cardinal Camillo Ruini mentioned in his homily that the possible beatification process for Don Santoro may be opened after February 2011.

Cardinal Piacenza on Priestly Celibacy, Part II

The Original Religious Order

Today I continue my commentary on Cardinal Piacenza's presentation of the recent Papal Magisterium concerning Priestly Celibacy. GIven that the Cardinal draws upon Pope Pius XII's Encyclical Sacra Virginitas and, thereby, suggests a parallel between the celibacy of the diocesan priest and the chastity vowed by the religious, I thought I might present Cardinal Mercier's intuition and conviction that diocesan priests are, in fact, religious: religious belonging to the oldest Order in the Church, one founded by Our Lord Himself.

The Secular Priest

The expression "secular priest" is an unfortunate one. It somehow suggests that the diocesan priest is a man of the world, and that he is justified in taking on worldly ways: in his possessions, in his entertainment, his dress, his leisure activities, his habits of eating and drinking, his vacations, and in his way of interfacing with contemporary culture. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The Directory on the Ministry and Life of Priests

On January 31, 1994, Pope John Paul II promulgated a document prepared by the Congregation for the Clergy to encourage and guide priests in their pursuit of holiness, while setting forth certain norms of priestly conduct. The document got very little press coverage at the time. It sets the standard, as it were, for the ministry and life of diocesan priests, and deserves to be better known, studied, prayed over, and lived. You can find it here.

Living Chastely from One Mass to the Next

Chastity flourishes in a lifestyle that is courageously counter-cultural, bracing, joyfully austere, fully human, and wholly focused on the Altar, to which the priest goes and from which he comes, day after day. The priest who consciously lives from one Mass to the next will, necessarily, discover the blessed imperative of chastity, and embrace it manfully -- temptations, struggles, humiliations, and battle wounds notwithstanding.

2. Pius XII and the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas

An influential contribution is made, from the magisterial point of view, by the Encyclical Sacra Virginitas, of 25 March 1954, of the Servant of God Pius XII. Like all of the Encyclicals of that august Pontiff, it is resplendent for its clear and profound doctrinal contribution, for the wealth of its biblical, historical, theological and spiritual references, and it constitutes even today a point of reference of notable merit. 

If the Encyclical has as its formal objective, in its strict sense, not ecclesiastical celibacy but virginity for the Kingdom of Heaven, nevertheless there are many points of reflection and explicit references to the celibate condition and the Priesthood that may be found in it.

The Diocesan Priest: A Religious

I have often heard diocesan priests protest, "We are not religious!" and even more vehemently "We are not monks!" Of course, they are correct in asserting this, but only from a peculiarly canonical and legalistic perspective. The question merits some investigation.


The saintly Désiré-Joseph Cardinal Mercier (1851-1926), Primate of Belgium and Archbishop of Malines, and one of the great hierarchs of modern times, made this long-debated and often burning argument the subject of a retreat he preached to his diocesan clergy in 1918. Cardinal Mercier's retreat conferences were published in 1934 under the title, La vie intérieure: Appel aux âmes sacerdotales. Allow me to present an excerpt from his Fourth Conference: A Prejudice. The translation from the French is my own.

My very dear confrères, this is the fourth time that I've had the joy of preaching your retreat, and I really think that I've come to know you. So long as I speak of work, pastoral activities, and generosity of soul, all goes along wonderfully: my word finds an echo in you, and I see not a single frown on your foreheads. When I speak of penitence, recollection, austerity of life, you still follow me -- less gaily perhaps -- but with good will, while nonetheless toning down my words. It's as if you were wanting to placate your consciences by saying, "Oh, yes, penance certainly, fasting, retreat; all of that is necessary, but not too much of it, because, after all, "we are not monks." And when, finally, I get to the point of talking to you seriously about poverty, religious obedience, the life of interior prayer, well then, this doesn't please a number of you. You think that I'm completely off the mark, and here's the phrase that comes to your lips, "But, really, we are, all the same, not religious!"

Cardinal Mercier addresses the argument:

What then is the direct answer to the question formulated at the beginning of this talk: Yes or No, are we (diocesan priests) religious? Those [diocesan priests] who object that they are not religious, base their argument on this consideration: that they are not in the state of religious life. They are correct. They are not professed religious belonging to the canonical state of religious perfection. But, from that affirmation, it does not follow that they are not religious It does not follow that they are not bound to the perfection of life to which religious are bound. No, a thousand times no.
First of all, not only are diocesan priests religious, but they are such in the eminent sense of the expression. They are religious, by virtue of the clerical state. They reaffirmed themselves in their vocation at each one of the steps of their successive ordinations, until, on the day of their ordination to the subdiaconate, the Church entrusted them with the public prayer par excellence, the "Holy Office," and entrusted them, on the day of their priestly ordination, with the cultic function par excellence, the liturgical celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.

Don Saturno.jpg

It's a great pity that the rite of tonsure marking entrance into the clerical state was suppressed by Pope Paul VI in Ministeria Quaedam, 1 January 1973. The rite itself was a rich source of the spirituality proper to the diocesan clergy. The use of Psalm 15, Conserva me, Domine, together with the apposite orations of the rite, deserves, even, now to be meditated and held in the heart. As for Ministeria Quaedam, I think it needs to be "critically revisited" as a dear professor of mine used to say.
Yes, my dear Confrères, you belong to the first religious Order established in the Church: your Founder is Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself; the first religious of His Order are the Apostles; their successors are the bishops and, in union with them, the priests, all the ministers of Holy Orders right down to those just admitted to the clerical state, because they make profession of wanting nothing apart from God as their heritage, and the service of God as their lifetime occupation.
You are religious, and this in a primordial way. Given this, it would be unthinkable that one of you should argue that he is not bound to a perfection that, if nothing else, at least equals that of religious in their monasteries. The truth is, on the contrary, that you are bound, by virtue of your clerical state and, even moreso, by your priesthood, to a higher perfection than theirs.
I shall not grow tired of quoting Saint Thomas Aquinas' declarations; they are so clear and so categorical:
"The monastic Orders come after the Orders of priestly ministry, they [the monastic Orders] must take them [the Orders of priestly ministry] as an example so as to elevate themselves to things of God." (2.2.q. 18, a.8)
"The fact of being committed, by the reception of Holy Orders, to the service of Christ Himself in the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, imposes a stricter obligation of interior holiness than does the religious state." (Ibid.)
The first religious of our Order knew no formula of engagement apart from these general declarations: that of Saint Peter, for example, "Lord, Thou knowest all things, Thou knowest that I love Thee" (Jn 21:17); or this other one: "Behold, Lord, we have left all things and have followed Thee" (Mt 19:27); or these two affirmations in which Saint Paul sums up the program of his apostolic labours: "But I most glad will spend and be spent myself for your souls" (2 Cor 12:15); and "Therefore I endure all things for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation, which is in Christ Jesus, with heavenly glory" (2 Tim 2:10).
There you have it, my dear Confrères, the pastoral profession [of vows] that we must take up again! There you have the models that we are to copy!
[Consider] . . . the formula of your initiation into the clerical state: "The Lord is the portion of my inheritance and of my chalice; it is Thou that wilt restore my inheritance to me" (Ps 15:5). Is not this a translation of the Apostolic College's formula of total abnegation and of attachment to God alone? And you subscribe to Saint Paul's program of pastoral charity when, on the day of your priesthood, you acquiesce to this solemn warning of your bishop: "The Lord would have the ministers of His Church perfect in word and in deed, established in the twin virtue of love of God and of neighbour."
Yes, we are religious . . . we are members of the Order founded by Christ, in His apostolate, perpetuated through the ages by the episcopate and by the ministers of the different orders of the hierarchy at the service of the altar.
We are pastors, sent out by Christ for the work of the redemption and the sanctification of the world: bishops, by virtue of the principle title that is theirs, and this for life; the others, by virtue of a subordinate title, as cooperators of the bishop, united to him in the care of souls, for the duration of their mandate.
We too have solemnly made our religious profession before God and before the Church. . . . We are religious, and we are pastors: united to Christ in His religious function before the Father; united to Him as His instruments in the work of redemption.

To be continued.

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

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